Environmental Health News

What's Working

  • Garden Mosaics projects promote science education while connecting young and old people as they work together in local gardens.
  • Hope Meadows is a planned inter-generational community containing foster and adoptive parents, children, and senior citizens
  • In August 2002, the Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD) Board voted to ban soft drinks from all of the district’s schools

#595 - Philadelphia Dumps On The Poor, 22-Apr-1998

The City of Philadelphia has a long history of dumping its toxic wastes
on other states and nations. Now the "city of brotherly love" is
refusing to spend a paltry sum ($200,000 or 0.008% of its annual
budget) to clean up 8 million pounds of the city's toxic incinerator
ash that was dumped on a beach in Haiti 10 years ago. Philadelphia
mayor Ed Rendell says the city is too poor to take responsibility for
its wastes.

Unfortunately, Philadelphia's attitude pervades U.S. environmental
policy. The U.S. remains the only industrialized country that has
refused to ratify the Basel Convention, which makes it illegal for
industrialized countries to send their toxic wastes to the developing
world. The United Nations Commission on Human Rights recently issued a
report, which the NEW YORK TIMES called "a bit embarrassing," naming
the United States as a major exporter of toxic waste.[1] Half of U.S.
waste exports go to Latin America, the report said.


Starting in the late 1970s, Philadelphia burned 40% of its municipal
garbage in two large incinerators, then dumped the resulting toxic ash
in the Kinsley landfill in New Jersey. (See REHW #52.) In 1984, New
Jersey woke up and refused further wastes from Philadelphia. In 1986,
after six states refused to accept Philadelphia's toxic ash, Mayor
Wilson Goode signed a contract to ship a million tons (2 billion
pounds) of the city's toxic incinerator ash to Panama in Latin America.

EPA [U.S. Environmental Protection Agency] analyzed the ash and
revealed that the first year's shipment of 250,000 tons to Panama would
contain 1800 pounds of arsenic, 4300 pounds of cadmium, and 435,000
pounds of lead. EPA said the toxic ash contained more dioxin than the
soil at Times Beach, Missouri --a town that had been evacuated in 1983
to protect residents from dioxin in the town's soil. An EPA report
dated September 5, 1987, said, "...the presence of heavy metals and
toxic chemicals, despite being generally below hazardous waste
thresholds, nevertheless may cause serious damage if released into the

The Panama plan was one of many cooked up by the City of Philadelphia
to dump its waste elsewhere. In the summer of 1986, Mayor Goode signed
a $640,000 contract with a local road-paving company, Joseph Paolino
and Sons, to ship 15,000 tons of toxic incinerator ash to the
Caribbean. (See REHW #55.) Paolino in turn hired Amalgamated Shipping,
based in Freeport, Bahamas, and on September 5, 1986, the vessel Khian
Sea left Philadelphia carrying the 15,000 tons (30 million pounds) of
toxic ash.

When the Khian Sea arrived in the Bahamas, Bahamian officials turned it
away. During the next 14 months, the Khian Sea was turned away by the
Dominican Republic, Honduras, Bermuda, Guinea-Bissau and the
Netherlands Antilles. Finally in late 1987, the Haitian government
issued an import permit for "fertilizer" and the Khian Sea dumped 4000
tons (8 million pounds) of Philadelphia's toxic ash on the beach near
the city of Gonaives, Haiti. As soon as the Haitians realized they
weren't getting fertilizer, they canceled the import permit and ordered
the waste returned to the ship, but the Khian Sea slipped away in the
night, leaving 8 million pounds of Philadelphia's toxic ash on the
beach. Some of that toxic ash has been moved inland, but much of it
remains on the beach, blowing around and washing slowly into the sea.

This embarrassing episode did not deter Philadelphia from continuing to
export its wastes to the developing world. In March, 1988, a Norwegian
ship dumped 15,000 tons of Philadelphia's toxic ash --labeled "raw
material for bricks" --in a quarry on Kassa Island off the mainland
capital of Conakry, Guinea. Guinea is a small west-African country
bordered by Sierra Leone, Liberia, and Mali. (see REHW #126.)

Still it was the Khian Sea that put Philadelphia on the world's map of
infamies. After it left Haiti, the Khian Sea traveled to the
Mediterranean and then into the Indian Ocean, still carrying
Philadelphia's ash. During the next two years, the Khian Sea changed
its name twice, but it still couldn't fool anyone into taking
Philadelphia's toxic cargo. It was revealed in 1992 that the crew of
the Khian Sea eventually solved its problem by dumping Philadelphia's
toxic ash into the Indian Ocean.

Meanwhile the world had become alerted to the problem of wealthy people
--specifically, Philadelphians --dumping their toxic waste on poor
countries like Haiti and Guinea.

Partly because of Philadelphia's infamous wandering ships, at a meeting
in 1989 in Basel, Switzerland, 33 countries agreed to the "Basel
Convention," which limited the freewheeling shipment of toxic waste
from one country to another. The 1989 version of the treaty was weak --
it said that industrialized countries could send toxic waste to poor
countries so long as there was "prior informed consent." Because the
waste trade is enormously profitable, a few corrupt or desperate
officials can always be found who will issue an import license for
toxic waste. The Basel Convention seemed to simply legalize the
wealthy's dumping on the poor. In protest, the African nations walked
out of the Basel meeting, saying they would develop their own treaty,
which they did. (See REHW #257.) The Bamako Convention, adopted January
29, 1991 by every African nation except South Africa and Morocco, is
much stronger than the original Basel Convention. The Bamako Convention
makes it illegal to export toxic waste to Africa, and it makes it a
criminal act for any African nation to import wastes. The Bamako
Convention was soon followed by other, similar regional agreements --
one covering the Caribbean, one covering the Mediterranean, and another
covering Central America.

These regional conventions provided momentum within the Basel
Convention nations. Eventually 118 countries --not including the U.S. -
- ratified the Basel Convention. In 1992, at the first meeting after
ratification --when only 65 countries were party to the Convention --
the Basel group agreed that there should be no waste exports from OECD
countries to developing nations. OECD is the Organization for Economic
Cooperation and Development --a group of 29 wealthy, industrialized
powers. This became known as the "Basel ban" and it was adopted
formally in 1994, thus greatly strengthening the Basel Convention.

At the Basel Convention meeting in 1995, the U.S. argued that the Basel
ban was really just an agreement and did not have the legal force of an
amendment to the original Convention. So, to meet U.S. objections, in
1995 the Basel ban was formally proposed as an amendment to the
original Convention. The amendment passed.

The latest U.S. ploy to undermine the spirit of the Basel Convention is
the U.S. plan, recently announced, to ratify the Basel Convention but
not ratify the Basel ban amendment.[2,3] The U.S. is hoping that,
because of its economic and political power, it can create havoc within
the Basel group by ratifying only those parts of the Conventions that
the U.S. likes. The U.S. position is being articulated by the U.S.
Chamber of Commerce. The goal is to keep the options open for countries
like India and Brazil to become the ultimate landfills for U.S. toxic

Today the U.S. maintains no records of most exports of toxic waste
because most of it is exported in the name of recycling. Once a waste
is designated as "recyclable" it is exempt from U.S. toxic waste law
and can be bought and sold as if it were ice cream. Slags, sludges, and
even dusts captured on pollution control filters are being bagged up
and shipped abroad. These wastes may contain significant quantities of
valuable metals, such as zinc, but they also can and do contain
significant quantities of toxic by-products such as cadmium, lead, and
dioxins. Still, the "recycling" loophole in U.S. toxic waste law is big
enough to float a barge through, and many barges are floating through
it, uncounted.

The prevailing attitude seems to be, the U.S. has a right to dump on
the rest of the world. This certainly seems to be the attitude in
Philadelphia, which is refusing to put up $200,000 to clean up the mess
its ash has created in Haiti. Here's an update on that story:

Two years ago, New York's mayor created a Trade Waste Commission to get
the mob out of the trash business and open it up to competition. Now
when a company applies for a license to haul waste in New York, the
Trade Waste Commission does a background check on company officials.
Last year the Commission began looking into Eastern Environmental
Services, Inc., and found that one of its principals, Louis D. Paolino,
had formerly run Joseph Paolino and Sons, the firm that hired the Khian
Sea.[4] Faced with the prospect of losing a lucrative license to haul
waste in New York, Eastern Environmental Services agreed to put up
$100,000 in cash to help retrieve Philadelphia's toxic ash from Haiti
and bury it in the company's Bender landfill near Harrisburg,
Pennsylvania --an in-kind contribution worth an estimated $250,000.
Unfortunately, the $100,000 cash contribution won't be sufficient to
retrieve the waste from Haiti --another $200,000 is needed.
Philadelphia has been asked to put up the $200,000, but Mayor Ed
Rendell has refused.

Why should Philadelphia pay?

First, Philadelphia saved its taxpayers $640,000 on the original deal
with the Paolino company back in 1986 because Paolino was never paid
for hauling the waste away on the Khian Sea. Thus the city profited
richly by sending the waste to Haiti.

Second, Philadelphia had a $130 million budget surplus last year, so
the city is flush.

Third, the agreement between the New York Waste Trade Commission and
Eastern Environmental expires May 31, 1998. After that, the company has
no further obligation to help retrieve Philadelphia's waste from Haiti.
Philadelphia needs to commit $200,000 soon.

Thus there is a clear window of opportunity for the people of
Philadelphia to do the right thing, to expunge an act of international
environmental injustice. Haiti is the poorest country in the
hemisphere, with a GDP [gross domestic product] in 1990 of about $2.4
billion and average per capita income of $380. The city of Philadelphia
has a budget of $2.6 billion, and per-capita income is $25,055,
according to the STATISTICAL ABSTRACT OF THE U.S. In comparison to
Haiti, Philadelphia is fabulously wealthy.

Philadelphia Mayor Ed Rendell simply says the city is too poor to pay
$200,000 to retrieve its waste from Haiti. The PHILADELPHIA INQUIRER
has editorialized, saying the city should pay the $200,000, which
represents only 0.008% of the city's annual budget.[5]

To help Haiti get rid of Philadelphia's toxic ash, phone Mayor Ed
Rendell: (215) 686-1776, or (215) 686-2181. Or write the mayor at City
Hall, Room 215, Broad and Market Streets, Philadelphia, PA 19107. And
check out the web site for Project Return To Sender:
www.essential.org/action/return/ .

--Peter Montague (National Writers Union, UAW Local 1981/AFL-CIO)


[1] Elizabeth Olson, "West Hinders Inquiry on Dumping as Rights Issue,"
NEW YORK TIMES April 5, 1998, pg. 10. See also, "Is Trafficking and
Dumping Toxic Waste a Human Rights Issue?" UDHR50 NEWS Vol. 2, No. 5
(April 15, 1998). UDHR50 NEWS is published on the internet by the
Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy in Minneapolis, Minnesota

[2] "Interview with Jim Puckett, Basel Action Network, Seattle,
Washington," CORPORATE CRIME REPORTER April 6, 1998, pgs. 12-16.

[3] Bette Hileman, "Treaty Grows Less Contentious," C&EN [CHEMICAL &
ENGINEERING NEWS] April 6, 1998, pgs. 29-30.

[4] Andrew C. Revkin, "New York Tries to Clean Up Ash Heap in the
Caribbean," NEW YORK TIMES January 15, 1998, pg. unknown. James
Ridgeway and Gaelle Drevel, "Dumping on Haiti," VILLAGE VOICE [New York
City] Vol. 43, No. 3 (January 20, 1998), pgs. 44-46.

[5] "A slow burn [editorial]", PHILADELPHIA INQUIRER April 6, 1998, pg.

Descriptor terms: philadelphia; pa; municipal solid waste; msw;
incineration; incinerator ash; ash; international waste trade; human
rights; khian sea; basel convention; bamako convention; eastern
environmental services; ed rendell;